SpaceX's September Falcon 9 launch pad explosion is continuing to have knock-on effects for the company's future launch scheduling, with NASA now confirming that the first crewed test flight of SpaceX's Dragon vehicle has been delayed until May 2018.
Originally pencilled in for August 2017, SpaceX's Dragon capsule was meant to be transporting NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead, November 2017 will see an uncrewed test flight for the Dragon capsule that was originally scheduled for May 2017.
The NASA post did not elaborate on the SpaceX delays, but in an emailed statement to the Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for Elon Musk's company said, "We are carefully assessing our designs, systems, and processes taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified. Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation."
NASA chose both Boeing and SpaceX to provide transport options back in September 2014 to launch and return astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The ultimate goal for NASA goal is to have safe, reliable and cost-effective access for ISS missions, but SpaceX's Dragon system has already caused some controversy before its launch pad disaster in September.
On November 4, NASA publicly disclosed a letter sent to the space agency in December 2015 by former astronaut and chairman of the International Space Station Advisory Committee Thomas Stafford. In the letter, Stafford expressed worries about SpaceX's method of fueling the Falcon 9 rockets that would carry aloft the Dragon capsule whilst astronauts are onboard.
"There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally," Stafford wrote.
The explosion on September 1, which happened on a static refueling test of the Falcon 9 rocket, would only have compounded Stafford's concerns. In an October 31 meeting of the International Space Station Advisory Committee, Stafford lambasted NASA for not replying to his original letter.
SpaceX has postponed all Falcon 9 launches following September's explosion, but hopes to resume operations by January 2017, pending a conclusion of the investigation into the accident. Either way, NASA's original hope of the first crewed launches blasting off by 2015 has long passed, upset by continuing technical difficulties such as water leakage and for Boeing, capsule component quality concerns.
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